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A Long-Simmering Family Tradition

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Some people store bicycles in their basements. Or suitcases, summer furniture, children's books long after the children have gone. MaryLynn and Greg Haase store homemade tomato sauce in their Arlington basement -- the 100 to 120 quart glass jars she fills every year.

From mid-August through mid-October, Haase transforms 50 to 75 pounds of tomatoes into sauce every weekend, and then cans them, using sterilized glass jars. Making each batch takes an entire day. And then there's the cleanup. "You can't believe what a mess it makes," she says. "I do it to keep my heritage alive." (And it probably helps that her husband loves the sauce.)

Haase, 48, grew up in an Italian American family in Washington, Pa., 28 miles south of Pittsburgh. Her grandmother did the cooking, and her grandfather, a barber, filled the back yard with basil and tomatoes and cucumbers. Nightly dinners included her parents, Leslie and Carmel Valitutti; her grandparents, Angelo and Maria Grazia Russo; her sister, Janice; and her Uncle Joe and Aunt Phyllis as well as the friends and other extended family who often joined them. Sunday meals always included a stewed meat with tomato sauce.

Haase enjoys emulating that tradition, welcoming family (in addition to her husband are daughter Leslie, 15, and son Alex, 17) and friends to her table. "If you can make people comfortable in your house and you feed them, it's nourishment for the soul," she says.

The expansive house on a leafy cul-de-sac where the Haase family lives is a continent -- and a century -- away from her southern Italian roots. And she worries that the culture she used to take for granted could fade away.

The family tomato sauce is part of that culture. So, using the coldpack canning method her grandmother taught her 23 years ago, Haase makes the sauce she remembers from her childhood. Over and over again.

It's a dense, rich sauce whose ingredients vary -- sometimes red peppers, garlic, onions, basil, parsley and shiraz; other times onions, mixed peppers, oregano, cayenne pepper, sugar and Chianti. But even when she sticks with the same recipe, the flavor changes with whatever tomatoes are in season: in the early days, standards such as Better Boy and beefsteak; later on, heirlooms and Brandywines, even cherry tomatoes and San Marzanos, many chefs' favorite.

Haase knows these details because she keeps track of each batch, noting the specific recipe and date (as in, "8/5/2001, Sauce number 1") on the jar lid and on the pages of written instructions she keeps in a fading, much-used green folder. The one she uses most these days (Sauce #1, 2002) calls for Roma tomatoes, garlic, onions, celery, carrots, a red pepper, a little light brown sugar, salt and pepper, Italian seasoning, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, parsley and basil.

Haase began putting up tomato sauce in earnest only about 15 years ago, a few years after her grandfather died. "I realized things were changing, that I was the next generation, and that I had to step up to the plate," she says.

Initially, she produced 15 to 20 quart jars of sauce each season. But while those bright-red sauce-filled jars made perfect Christmas gifts, she realized she needed to make more for her family and for gifts at other times of the year.

As her output expanded, the process began taking over her weekends -- even with her husband's help in carrying, sorting and cleaning because the tomatoes had to be skinned before cooking.

After awhile, Haase discovered with relief that a machine could do that. And these days, she's graduated from a basic model to a more sophisticated Italian one that can skin, seed and squeeze about 30 pounds of tomatoes in about half an hour. "Once I got the machine, I was Superman," she says. "It saves at least two hours for each batch."

She takes no other shortcuts: The flavors take a long time to marry, she explains, from five to eight hours on a low flame. The batches age differently, too. "It's never the same two weeks in a row. There has to be a bottom note and a top note," she says. "But one bad tomato can ruin the whole batch."

Sometimes she's helped by friends who come over to slice the vegetables and watch over the sauce, and then stay for dinner. The final stage of the cooking can take anywhere from three to six hours, depending on how watery the tomatoes are and how thick she wants the sauce to be. "At some point, you just open up a bottle of wine and say 'that's it,' " she says. "It's not just dinner. It's a party."

(One thing Haase doesn't even think of doing is growing her own tomatoes. For about five years, she's been buying them from the Toigo Orchards stand at the Arlington Farmers Market.)

Is it worth the entire family's planning their weekends around saucemaking? "Oh, yes," says Greg Haase. "We have a good time doing it, and we have friends who beg for it."

Although occasionally Haase serves her sauce over Italian sausage, chicken breasts or green beans, she never considers dressing it up with shellfish or mushrooms or meatballs. Most of the time, it's served straight with pasta that has completed its few minutes of cooking directly in the sauce. There's a lot of Parmesan cheese in the sauce by then, too, and to finish, she adds "a little butter."

"In the dead of winter, it's like summer in a jar," she says. "It's simply a labor of love. What else can you give someone that says, 'I really care about you.' "

MaryLynn's Pasta Sauce

Makes about 20 cups

MaryLynn Haase spends all day making a batch of her sauce. This version, for a smaller amount, takes a mere three to six hours to make. Haase says it took her more than 20 years to get the recipe right.

10 pounds Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded* and chopped (may substitute heirloom or so-called "overripes" sold at farmers markets)

4-6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large yellow onion (about 1 cup)

5 cloves garlic

3/4 to 1 cup chopped celery

3/4 to 1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped

1 tablespoon kosher salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons Italian seasoning

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

1 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar, or to taste

1/2 to 3/4 cup red wine

1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup chopped basil leaves

In a large pot on medium heat, cook the peeled and seeded tomato pulp, stirring frequently, until it reaches a thick, pureed consistency, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. (If put through a tomato squeezer, as mentioned in the story, the tomatoes will take 2 hours to reach the desired consistency, as they retain more water than when processed by hand.)

Meanwhile, in a large pot on medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes or until it is golden. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, being careful not to burn it. Add the celery, carrots and bell pepper and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Pour the tomato puree into the pot with vegetables. Add the salt to taste, pepper, Italian seasoning, oregano, bay leaf, thyme and the crushed red pepper flakes, if desired. Adjust the heat to medium-low or keep at a slow simmer and cook for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary; add the light brown sugar in teaspoon increments, stirring and tasting after 10 minutes each time so that the flavors can meld.

Cook the sauce uncovered for 2 to 3 hours at a slow simmer, tasting and stirring every 30 minutes. Adjust seasonings as necessary.

About 30 minutes before serving or preparing to can this sauce, add the red wine, parsley and basil, being careful not to overcook the last 3 ingredients as they may turn bitter. At this point, the sauce is ready to serve or store as needed.

Per 1 cup serving: 86 calories, 2 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 g saturated fat, 376 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber

Recipe tested by Judith M. Havemann; e-mail questions tohttp://food@washpost.com *NOTE : To peel and seed tomatoes, score the bottom of each one with an X and remove the stem, cutting only the skin and not into the meat of the tomato. Bring a pot of water to a boil, and have ready a bowl of ice water. When the water boils, add the tomatoes and remove after 15 seconds with a skimmer or slotted spoon. Immediately plunge into the ice water to stop the cooking. When cool, drain on a perforated rack or in a colander. Peel away the skin from each tomato and discard. Cut the tomatoes into halves. Remove the seeds.

Tomato squeezers perform this task faster, but the tomatoes retain more water. Squeezers are available at Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table stores for about $30.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company